Category Archives: Plants & Fungi

Smart Weeds

Oriental lady’s thumb is an Asiatic smartweed, Schenley Park, 10 Sep 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

13 September 2021

Today’s article began with a question asked three times: What is that weed? I couldn’t remember the name even though I knew each was in the knotweed family (Polygonaceae) and that a similar native species was named for Pennsylvania.

On the first question I took a picture in Schenley Park, above. On the second question, Claire Bauerle took a picture at Duff Park, below. My plant and Claire’s plant are both alien but not the same species.

Lady’s thumb (photo by Claire Bauerle)

Claire’s plant shows its name on its leaves, a shadowy thumbprint in the center of the leaf.

Lady’s thumb (Persicaria maculosa) is a Eurasian smartweed that first appeared in the Great Lakes region in 1843, has spread across the continent, and is sometimes invasive. The dark thumbprint is a simple way to identify the plant.

My plant is similar but lacks the thumbprint. Not the same species but my photo is not detailed enough for a complete identification. My guess is Oriental lady’s thumb (Persicaria longiseta) a common weed in Asian rice paddies introduced to North America near Philadelphia in 1910 and now found across eastern North America.

The third question was answered on Sunday’s Botanical Society walk on the South Side where we found the smartweed named for Pennsylvania.

Pinkweed or Pennsylvania smartweed (Persicaria pensylvanica) now grows in waste places around the world. Gangly-looking compared to the lady’s thumbs, it has longer stalks, thinner leaves, and fatter, shorter, paler flower heads.

Pinkweed or Pennsylvania smartweed mixed in with other weeds, 12 Sep 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Here’s a single stalk.

Pinkweed or Pennsylvania smartweed, 12 Sep 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

It has no flower bristles like those found on Oriental lady’s thumb P. maculata.

Flower heads of pinkweed (photo by Kate St. John)

All three smartweeds have stems that connect to the stalks at knot-like ochreas. Two of them, P. longiseta and P. pensylvanicum have bristly ochreas, shown below.

Bristly ochrea on pinkweed, P. pensylvanicum (photo by Kate St. John)

Identifying smartweeds is much trickier than I’ve described so I may have misidentified the first two plants.

If I was smart I’d know what to look for and take better pictures to key them out.

(photos by Kate St. John and Claire Bauerle)

p.s. Three range maps which might not work in Chrome: P. maculosa, P. longiseta, P. pensylvanica

The Devil’s What?!

(photo taken at Moraine State Park 2 Sep 2021, by Kate St. John)

3 September 2021

Seven of us retired ladies went birding yesterday morning at Moraine State Park. After a flurry of warblers we found this pink fleshy thing on the ground, the size an index finger.

As we tried to identify it someone suggested a fungus called devil’s fingers. Linda uploaded a photo to iNaturalist and the answer came back right away: the devil’s dipstick.

Umm, yah. “Small devil.” We dissolved in laughter.

After we’d wiped the laughing tears from our eyes we googled for more.

Mutinus elegans, a member of the Phallaceae family, is also known as elegant stinkhorn or headless stinkhorn.

As the egg-shaped fruiting body matures it ruptures and the spongy spore-bearing stalk emerges; fully grown, it may be from 0.4 to 5.9 inches long and 0.6 to 0.8 inches thick. The stalk is hollow and strongly wrinkled overall; its shape is cylindrical below, but it gradually tapers to a narrow apex with a small opening at the tip.

Wikipedia account: Mutinus elegans

The one we found was an old specimen. When new, the stalk stands up and the upper third is coated with a stinky greenish-brown spore-containing slime that attracts flies to bear away the spores. Here’s a newer specimen, photographed in Florida.

There are even more suggestive specimens here and here.

The devil’s what?!

p.s. At least one of the ladies in our group is not retired but she is a grandmother so I invoked my poetic license to describe us.

(top photo by Kate St. John, second photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)

Today in Schenley Park, Aug 29

Schenley Park outing, 29 August 2021 (photos by Kate St. John)

29 August 2021

This morning’s outing in Schenley Park was very well attended — 28 people! — so I had to paste two photos together to get (almost) everyone in.

The weather was clammy-hot and the birds were not active but bugs were easy to find. Can you see the green stink bug (Chinavia hilaris) in this picture?

Green stink bug, Schenley Park, 29 Aug 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

We also saw cocklebur as promised and an unusual invasive, yellow nutsedge (Cyperus esculentus), which is cultivated in Eurasia for its edible tubers eaten as snack food or made into a sweet milk-like beverage.

Yellow nutsedge, Schenley Park at Panther Hollow Lake, 29 Aug 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Our Best Bird was a lucky find. As we stood next to Panther Hollow Lake a peregrine falcon zoomed overhead, went into a stoop, and disappeared beyond Phipps Conservatory on his way to the Cathedral of Learning.

We worked for every bird on this checklist at

Schenley Park–Panther Hollow, Allegheny, Pennsylvania, US
Aug 29, 2021 8:30 AM – 10:30 AM, 1.5 mile(s), 19 species

Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)  30    part of the larger flock on Phipps lawn
Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura)  2
Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris)  1
Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)  2    1 adult, 1 immature circling as we ended the walk
Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens)  2
Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus)  4
Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)  1    Flyover went into a stoop beyond Phipps roof
Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata)  6
Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis)  2
Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor)  1    Heard
Carolina Wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus)  2
European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)  1
Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis)  2
Wood Thrush (Hylocichla mustelina)  2
American Robin (Turdus migratorius)  3
Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum)  2
House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus)  5
Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)  2
Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)  4

The next walk, scheduled for 26 September at Bartlett Shelter, should be cooler. Whew!

(photos by Kate St. John)

A Tree in the Nestbox?

What is growing in the Pitt peregrine nestbox? (photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera at Univ of Pittsburgh)

29 August 2021

Something big and green is growing in the Pitt peregrines’ nestbox. What is it?

It first appeared as a small green smudge in late July. You can barely see it in this photo of Morela.

By 2 August the smudge matched the green perch. Ecco ignored it.

By 27 August it was hard to ignore. Ecco gave it more space.

The leaves remind me of black locust but trees usually don’t have a growth spurt in late summer. Weeds do.

It’s probably a weed. Can you identify it?

Meanwhile, don’t worry that the weed will be a lasting problem. We plan to remove it during annual nestbox maintenance this winter. Even if we didn’t it won’t interrupt nesting. Young peregrines are fine with weeds as shown in this 5 June 2010 snapshot from the Gulf Tower.

Click here and scroll to the bottom for an up-to-date look at the Pitt snapshot camera. What do you think it is? Is it wild senna?

(photos from the National Aviary falconcams at Univ of Pittsburgh in 2021 and Gulf Tower in 2010)

Non-Functional Grass?

Closeup of a single-species lawn (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

24 August 2021

If you’re looking for a sign of the End Times, here’s one: Las Vegas, the city where seemingly anything and everything is condoned, has made grass — the ornamental kind — illegal.

Much of the West is experiencing the worst drought in decades, a “megadrought” that has kindled early wildfires and severe water shortages. … Enter aridification, exit grass. Gov. Steve Sisolak of Nevada just signed into law bill AB356, which requires the removal of all “nonfunctional turf” from the Las Vegas Valley by the year 2027.

New York Times, 11 June 2021: Where the Grass is Greener Except When It’s ‘Nonfunctional Turf’

The law was prompted by a crisis in June when Lake Mead, which supplies 90% of the Las Vegas Valley’s water, fell to the critically low point that triggers federally mandated water cuts. (See photos here.) Nevada knew it was coming and was ready with an easy way to save water — they banned non-functional grass.

In Pittsburgh where it rains regularly and sometimes too much we don’t have the term “non-functional grass,” but like the rest of America we have plenty of grass that no one walks on in office parks, street medians, parking lots, and even front yards. For example, here is the ultimate in non-functional grass (not in Pittsburgh; photo from Wikimedia Commons).

Non-functional grass around a concrete planter (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

… and some examples in Las Vegas. These photos were taken 7 to 13 years ago so the sites may have changed considerably.

Non-functional grass at Royal Links Golf Course parking lot, 2009 (photo by Dan Perry via Flickr Creative Commons license)
Non-functional grass in Circus Circus KOA parking lot, 2008 (photo by Marco Metzler via Flickr Creative Commons license)

In Las Vegas all turf has to be irrigated and 31% of it is non functional. Golf courses, parks and single-family backyards are allowed because their grass is used. The big green swatch, below, will be irrigated. Even so, the non-functional turf ban will save 10% of the water supply.

Aerial view of Las Vegas area near South Highlands Golf Club, 2014 (photo by Jim Mullhaupt via Flickr Creative Commons license)

So what will fill the gaps when the grass is gone?

Many places in Las Vegas have already solved the problem with xeric (desert) landscaping or “xeriscaping.” Again, these photos are 7 to 15 years old so the sites may look different now.

Xeric landscaping at Paiute Golf Resort, 2006 (photo by Dan Perry via Flickr Creative Commons license)
Desert landscaping at Railroad Cottages, Springs Preserve Las Vegas, 2018 (photo by Rosa Say via Flickr Creative Commons license)
Desert landscaping at UNLV near Flora Dunhan Humanities building, 2006 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In Pittsburgh we have so much water that we never think about useless grass. Sometimes we irrigate it. Sometimes the sprinklers run in the rain! Bob Donnan has tips for watering in southwestern Pennsylvania to avoid fungus in your grass or garden.

Meanwhile, for those of us who hate to cut, weed, and fertilize grass in the rainy eastern U.S. a ban on non-functional grass would a blessing in disguise.

Click here to learn more about xeriscaping.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons and Flickr Creative Commons licenses; click on the captions to see the originals)

A Closer Look at Wingstem

Wingstem in bloom shows double-looped pistils, 1 August 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

7 August 2021

When wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) blooms in August, its mop-like flowers reach as high as 8 feet tall. Wingstem often grows in clumps because it spreads by seeds and rhizomes. From a distance it looks ragged (below) but its double-looped pistils and insect pollinators (at top) are worth a closer look.

A clump of wingstem (photo by Kate St. John)

Wingstem takes its common name from the vertical ridges (wings) that run down its stem.

Stem of wingstem (photo by Kate St. John)

The flower disc resembles a pin cushion topped with brown anthers and yellow double-loop pistils. So far I have not found a floret whose anthers and pistils are protruding simultaneously, but I’ll have to look again.

Wingstem pistils and anthers on central disc flowers (photo by Kate St. John)

The disc florets are so deep that long-tongued insects such as bees, wasps and butterflies sip the nectar.

Wingstem is attractive to bees and other long-tongued insects (photo by Kate St. John)

The plant is host to the silvery checkerspot butterfly (Chlosyne nycteis), the gold moth (Basilodes pepita) and a few aphids.

Aphids feasting on wingstem stems (photo by Kate St. John)

Wingstem is easy to find in southwestern Pennsylvania because its leaves are bitter — deer don’t eat it. There are lots of opportunities this month to give wingstem a closer look.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Fleabane’s Daily Exercise Program

Philadelphia fleabane, 17 May 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

5 August 2021

Fleabane has a daily exercise regimen that responds to light.

Daisy fleabane, 30 June 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

At sunset Philadelphia fleabane (Erigeron philadelphicus) and daisy fleabane (Erigeron annuus) close their ray petals and bow their heads. In the morning they raise their heads and open their petals, ready for insect pollination.

The process is called nyctinasty and is controlled by their circadian clocks.

Daisy fleabane opening in the morning (photo by Kate St. John)

Learn more about their exercise program and how to identify daisy and Philadelphia fleabane in this vintage article: The Bane of Fleas.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Two Tobaccos

Indian tobacco at Moraine State Park, 30 July 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

3 August 2021

Indian tobacco is a poisonous plant unrelated to cultivated tobacco yet it has the same name. What’s the difference?

Indian tobacco (Lobelia inflata) is native to eastern North America with tiny blue flowers on a plant six inches to three feet tall. The flowers are so small you might not notice them among the plant’s rumpled leaves. The one pictured above is blooming this week in Moraine State Park.

The plant’s alternate name is “puke weed” for good reason.

This acrid poisonous annual is found in a variety of sites, often in poor soil. The American Indians were said to have smoked and chewed its leaves; hence the common name. Though once used as an emetic, the root should not be eaten, for if taken in quantity it can be fatal. description of Lobelia inflata

Both tobaccos are poisonous but in different ways.

Indian tobacco contains multiple alkaloid compounds that are poisonous if ingested. A member of the family Campanulaceae, it is related to bellflowers, not related to real tobacco. You can be poisoned by Indian tobacco if you swallow it.

Cultivated tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) is a hybrid of two or three wild tobaccos native to the Andes Mountains of Bolivia and Argentina. It’s in Family Solanaceae and related to tomatoes, potatoes, and some very poisonous plants including Datura. You can see that the tobacco flower is quite different from the Indian tobacco flower.

Tobacco is poisonous because it contains nicotine which can hurt you in a number of ways. Did you know it be absorbed through the skin? Tobacco workers must wear gloves, long sleeve shirts, long pants and water-resistant clothing to prevent nicotine poisoning that causes nausea and vomiting and can lead to heat stroke.

In a choice between the two tobaccos I’d rather deal with the Lobelia.

(photos by Kate St. John and from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Late July Flowers and Seeds

Oxeye or false sunflower, Nine Mile Run Trail, 29 July 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

31 July 2021

In late July field flowers bloom while others develop seeds.

The photo at top of oxeye or false sunflowers (Heliopsis helianthoides) was supposed to be a documentation photo so I could study the leaves. Can you find the milkweed bug on one of the flowers?

Blue vervain (Verbena hastata) is blooming at Presque Isle State Park where I took this photo on Wednesday. Vervain flowers are so small that the plant looks boring from afar. It is well worth a closer look.

Blue Vervain, Presque Isle State Park, 28 July 2021

On Thursday Charity Kheshgi and I explored the grassland top of the slag heap at Nine Mile Run. In one area the slag is so porous that rainwater percolates straight though it, creating a desert habitat. Nonetheless we found a vibrant orange butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) in bloom.

Butterfly weed at the slag heap, 29 July 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Namesake plant: Dwarf St. John’s wort (Hypericum mutilum) is native to North America.

Dwarf St. John’s wort, Moraine State Park, 30 July 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Seeds! Redbud trees (Cercis canadensis) in the city parks have a bumper crop of seed pods this year.

Redbud seed pods, thick on the branches, Nine Mile Run Trail, 29 July 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Nodding thistle (Carduus nutans) has gone to seed along the lower Nine Mile Run Trail where it looked like this in June (click here). We saw many American goldfinches feeding on these natural thistle feeders.

Nodding thistle seeds, Nine Mile Run Trail, 29 July 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Today is our last chance to enjoy July. The weather is lovely in Pittsburgh so get outdoors.

(photos by Kate St. John)

True and False Sunflowers

Oxeye or false sunflowers at Jennings Prairie, August 2013 (photo by Kate St. John)

25 July 2021

At Jennings Prairie Richard Nugent taught me a trick for identifying sunflowers true and false.

Sunflowers are daisy-like composites with a central disc surrounded by ray petals. The disc contains many tiny flowers.

True sunflowers: In true sunflowers, genus Helianthus, the fertile parts are all in the central disc where this bee is feeding. The ray petals are showy but not flowers in their own right.

Tall sunflower with bumblebee, Jennings Prairie (photo by Kate St. John)

It’s easy to find true sunflowers at Jennings Prairie. Tall sunflowers (Helianthus giganteus) towered over our heads.

Tall sunflowers, Jennings Prairie (photo by Kate St. John)

False sunflowers: False sunflowers have fertile rays in addition to the central disc. If you pull off a ray petal you’ll see a tiny pistil at the end where it was attached.

That’s why another name for oxeye sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides) is false sunflower.

Oxeye or false sunflowers, Jennings Prairie (photo by Kate St. John)

This method is so much easier than deciphering the leaves among Helianthus species.

(photos by Kate St. John)